Project 2 Reflection point
Where would you choose to do a project of this scale given the chance? What would you choose as your subject matter? What worlds would you like to create?
I would choose to visit European cities – Western Europe and on into the East. This is not a new idea for a project – cities as a subject. For example in 1996 Victor Burgin published ‘Some Cities’ (Burgin, 1996) which is:
a travelogue with an insightful, analytical writing style to coincide with page after page of minimalist photographs taken from Northern England to his [Burgin] present home in northern California. It is an itinerary including stops in Sheffield, Berlin, Malmo, Warsaw, Woomera, New York, and the islands of Stromboli and Tobago. It is a modern (some may say postmodern?) inquiry about spaces and places, memory, childhood, looking, distance, loss, perspective, urban history, social and architectural change. Underlying the spare black and white images which are focused in the main on public spaces, urban information systems, and the places of transportation is a stylish text in which Burgin occasionally breaks through into substantial descriptive writing … (Hankwitz, s.d).
Burgin’s book and exhibition (Galerie Thomas Zander, 2017) illustrates the broad possibilities that such a project offers. As Burgin states at the outset:
Our relations with cities are like our relations with people. We love them, or are indifferent toward them. On our first day in a city that is new to us, we go looking for the city. We go down this street, around that corner. We are aware of the faces of passers-by. But the city eludes us, and we become uncertain whether we are looking for a city, or for a person (Burgin, 1996: 7).
As Burgin observes ‘the city eludes us’ despite the fact that it can be described and observed objectively. Each city, made by its people, has a unique quality and an identity that makes it more than an agglomeration of buildings. The subject matter of my project would be the people living in, and coming to terms with living in, particular European cities:
A city without people is a dead city. The crowd is the essential sign of city life. A living city is the embodiment of the people who inhabit it. They fill its streets and its public spaces; they pour in every day to find all that a city has to offer (Sudjic, 2016).
While the crowd is ‘the essential sign’ of the city, and it is possible to be lonely anywhere: ‘there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people’ (Laing, 2016: 3). There is therefore a paradox that living in a city brings between the individual and the crowd. An artist whose work is often thought to give expression to this is Edward Hooper (see for example fig. 1., 2., and 3.). Is there a difference between cities, are some more alienating than others?
The journey that traverses a large territory in order to capture something of its essence is mostly associate with a road trip across the US where: ‘long-repeated promises of liberty and freedom begin to haunt the American imagination and the road trip like broken promises’ (Campany, 2014: 29). For example David Campany identifies:
an unbroken thread that runs form Walker Evan’s ‘American Photographs’ (1938) to Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ (1958/59), Stephen Shore’s ‘American Surfaces’ (1972), Jacob Holdt’s ‘American Pictures’ (1977), Joel Sternfeld’s ‘American Prospects’ (1987), Paul Graham’s ‘American Night’ (2003), right up to Doug Rickard’s ‘A New American Picture’ (2010) (Campany, 2014: 35).
Campany remarks that: ‘The American experiment is ongoing. It is in a state of constant becoming and thus needs to be monitored’ (Campany, 2014: 35). Stephen Barber says something similar about the European city, of its demand for ‘constant, obsessional exploration’ (Barber, 1995: 7):
The European city is a hallucination made flesh and concrete, criss-crossed by marks of negation: graffiti, bullet-holes, neon. The city is an immense arena of eroded and exploded sighs – signs that mediate the city to the individual, and that individual to the city. For all their pockets of stasis and stagnation, the European cities have taken on a momentum of transformation in the final decade of the twentieth century, and that transformation demands constant, obsessional exploration (Barber, 1995: 7).
The world I would like to create
Famously American’s chase ‘a Dream’ and the knowledge of this pursuit arguably influenced the photographers listed by Campany above. Close to a dream in nature is a hallucination to which Barber (above) compares European cities. Both dreams and hallucinations each have a darker side – dreams can turn to nightmares and hallucinations to bitter illusions. It is true that every city is distinct:
Climate, topography and architecture are part of what creates that distinctiveness, as are its [city] origins. Cities based on trade have qualities different from those that were called into being by manufacturing. Some cities are built by autocrats, others have been shaped by religion. Some cities have their origins in military strategy or statecraft (Sudjic, 2016:1).
Nevertheless, globalisation is bringing convergence, with people and cultures often being forced to interact, and this interaction takes place almost exclusively in cities. This creates liminal, transitional zones where the results of globalisation, both good and bad, may be observed as individuals (both native and emigrant) attempt to negotiate this new unmapped territory, both physical and cultural. This negotiation, with its many new variables — ethnic, cultural, religious, economic, familial — must give a historically new twist to the universal dynamic between the city dwelling individual and the crowd. The world I would create is this new liminal zone.
Photographers who have explored a similar theme include Virgilio Ferreira, Lucy Levene, Henrik Malmström and Tereza Zelenkova – all contributors to the group show ‘Rebecoming’ at Flowers Gallery in east London, curated by Tim Clark in 2014 which tackled the subject of emigration: ’The sense of place suggested in Levene and Zelenkova’s work reflects a melancholy state of mind – the sense of not belonging, and longing for home, that so defines the emigrant’s life’ (O’Hagan, 2014). The exhibited work of Tereza Zelenkova’s:
takes a detached approach to the subject of belonging and alienation. Her series Girls and Gloves [see fig. 4.] gathers detritus from an abandoned brick factory in Bedford that once employed over 7,000 Italian men. Black-and-white closeups of the grubby gloves they wore are juxtaposed with crumpled remnants of the Page 3 pinups that adorned the walls, where the menial and mind-numbing work, she suggests, bred an atmosphere of simmering sexual and social frustration (O’Hagan, 2014).
Another source of inspiration could be the work from the same exhibition by Virgilio Ferreira which was described by a critic as:
Perhaps the most atmospheric series … photographer Ferreira, who has tried to show the inner emotional landscape of emigration. His pictures sit somewhere between documentary and impressionistic narrative, and are a lyrical evocation of the Portuguese diaspora. Using blurred movement and double exposure as well as traditional portraiture and landscape, his work is best experienced in the accompanying book, Being and Becoming, which is mysterious and allusive but quietly, cumulatively fascinating (O’Hagan, 2014).
Ferreira says of the project:
Becoming is a concept derived from philosophy which considers change in itself as process and a transition from one state to another. It refers to the transformation and changes in one’s way of being. Change is inevitable and an essential part of the world.
This project focuses on the lives of several migrant workers in Europe, who left their countries looking for better living conditions. What I intent to depict is not only the human presence, but emotional aspects or inscriptions (on people’s faces or environments), while symptomatic enough and able to reveal something. These psychological portraits also attempt to open up a perceptual area for reflecting on “hybrid identity” and the “third space”, the polarity of living in-between cultures, languages and borders [see fig. 5. and 6.] (Ferreira, s.d).
Figures 1 – 3 (click to enlarge)
Figure 1. Hooper, E., 1939. New York Movie
Figure 2. Hooper, E., 1942. Nighthawks.
Figure 3. Hooper, E., 1952. Morning Sun
Figure 4. (click to enlarge)
Figure 4. Tereza Zelenkova from Girls and Gloves
Figure 5. (click to enlarge)
Figure 5. Ferreira, V., 2013. From Being and Becoming
Figure 6. (click to enlarge)
Figure 6. Ferreira, V., 2013. From Being and Becoming.
Barber, S., 1995. Fragments of the European City. London: Reaktion
Burgin, V., 1996. Some Cities. London: Reaktion Books
Campany, D., 2014. The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip. New York: Aperure
Ferreira, V., s.d. Being and Becoming [online] Available at: http://www.virgilioferreira.com/projectos/being-and-becoming?showtext=1 [Accessed 19 01 18]
Galerie Thomas Zander, 2017. Victor Burgin Some Cities September 02 – November 04, 2017. [online] Available at: http://www.galeriezander.com/en/exhibition/some_cities/information [Accessed 17 01 18]
Hankwitz, M. B., s.d. Some Cities by Victor Burgin [online] Available at: http://www.cristintierney.com/attachment/en/5374ea09a9aa2cc9708b4568/News/57c48efa8cdb50f4663a101c [Accessed 17 01 2018]
Laing, O., 2016. The Lonely City. Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. Edinburgh: Canongate Books
O’Hagan, S., 2014. ‘Factory floors and sexual frustration: photographing the migrant worker’s life.’ In: The Guardian [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/sep/11/factory-sexual-frustration-photographing-migrant-workers-life [Accessed 20 01 18]
Figure 1. Hooper, E., 1939. New York Movie. [online] Available at: https://www.edwardhopper.net/images/paintings/newyork-movie.jpg [Accessed 17 01 8]
Figure 2. Hooper, E., 1942. Nighthawks. [online] Available at: https://www.edwardhopper.net/images/paintings/nighthawks.jpg [Accessed 17 01 8]
Figure 3. Hooper, E., 1952. Morning Sun. [online] Available at: https://www.edwardhopper.net/images/paintings/morning-sun.jpg [Accessed 17 01 8]
Figure 4. Zelenkova, T., 2013. From Girls and Gloves. [online] Available at: https://i.guim.co.uk/img/static/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2014/9/11/1410436963711/4ca3fc60-6990-40a9-aa5d-17ab36628177-1654×2040.jpeg?w=620&q=55&auto=format&usm=12&fit=max&s=e9c3de996840414565516db668734833 [Accessed 19 01 18]
Figure 5. Ferreira, V., 2013. From Being and Becoming. [online] Available at: http://www.virgilioferreira.com/projectos/being-and-becoming/01-Virgilio-Ferreira.jpg [Accessed 19 01 18]
Figure 6. Ferreira, V., 2013. From Being and Becoming. [online] Available at: http://www.virgilioferreira.com/projectos/being-and-becoming/02-Virgilio-Ferreira.jpg [Accessed 19 01 18]